Almost six years after a wildfire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in Southern California, prosecutors say they have enough evidence to charge a prison inmate with arson and murder in connection with the 2003 blaze.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said Tuesday that a special criminal grand jury indicted Rickie Lee Fowler, a 28-year-old prison inmate, on arson and murder charges in connection to the wildfire that has been linked to five heart attack deaths.
Fowler is serving time in state prison for burglary. He was first interviewed in connection with fire in February 2004, based on a telephone tip, but there was not enough evidence to charge him, San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull said.
The investigation began to gain steam in February 2008, and new evidence obtained as recently as three weeks ago allowed prosecutors to identify Fowler as a suspect, Stull said.
He faces five counts of murder, one count of aggravated arson and one count of arson of an inhabited structure. The statute of limitations on arson would have run out on Oct. 25.
The notorious Old Fire erupted in the Waterman Canyon area of the San Bernardino Mountains above the city of San Bernardino and eventually swept across 90,000 acres, or about 140 square miles.
Several witnesses reported seeing a passenger in a white van tossing burning objects into dry brush. In late 2004, authorities said they were focusing on a young man they believed may have been the arsonist and were trying to identify a second man but did not have enough evidence to make arrests.
Another man, Martin Valdez Jr., was also believed to be a suspect but he was shot and killed in Muscoy in 2006.
Stull said prosecutors were not sure who actually threw a road flare that started the blaze but are confident they have enough evidence.
Lisa McDermith, the daughter-in-law of one of the victims, James McDermith, said the retired accountant had a heart attack while driving to retrieve a trailer he planned to use to evacuate from his house.
“We’re happy for this, not only for us but for all the families who lost a family member and who lost homes,” she said. “He caused a lot of grief to so many people. There will finally be some closure.”
In addition to McDermith, the individuals whose deaths are being prosecuted are Charles Howard Cunningham, 93; retired fire captain Chad Leo Williams, 70; Robert Norman Taylor, 54; and Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67.
Although authorities initially linked six fatal heart attacks to the distress of the evacuations, Stull said in one of those cases the victim’s widow felt that the attack was not caused by the fire.
The murder charges include the special circumstance of murder during the commission of arson, he said. Prosecutors have not determined whether they would seek the death penalty if Fowler is convicted, Stull said.
District attorney spokeswoman Susan Mickey didn’t know if Fowler had a lawyer. His arraignment is expected within two weeks, after he is transferred from a prison in Lancaster.
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